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Not-So-National Merit

Last December, thousands of high school sophomores and juniors learned the results of the 2013 Preliminary SAT (PSAT) test.  The juniors’ test scores will be used to determine whether they qualify as semifinalists for the prestigious National Merit Scholarship, which in turn makes them eligible for a host of automatic college scholarships.  (Sophomores take the test just as practice.)

The juniors will have to wait to find out for sure if they qualify until September, just before they begin submitting applications to colleges across the country.  But it is fairly straightforward to predict, based on their scores and last year’s cutoffs, whether they will qualify as semifinalists.

Many students would be surprised to learn that qualification depends not only on how high they score, but also on where they go to school.   The National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) sets different qualifying cutoffs for each state to “ensure that academically talented young people from all parts of the United States are included in this talent pool.”  They have not disclosed any specific criteria for setting the state cutoffs.

A high school student’s chances of receiving the award can depend crucially on his or her state of residence.  Last year, students in West Virginia needed only a 203 to qualify as a semifinalist (scores range from 60-240), while students from Texas needed a 219 and students from Washington, D.C. a 224.  Nationally, the West Virginia score was in the 97thpercentile of scores, while the Washington DC score was at the 99.5th percentile based on a mean score of 143 and a standard deviation of 31.

I’ve crudely estimated that because of this state cutoff discrimination, approximately 15% of students (about 2,400 students a year) who are awarded semifinalist status have lower scores than other students who were not semifinalists merely due to their geographic location.  Troublesomely, I also found that states with larger minority populations tend to have higher cutoffs.

Instead of just complaining, I have partnered with an extraordinary high-school sophomore from New Jersey named India Unger-Harquail to try to do something about it.

We’ve just launched a new website,  You can go to site, enter a score, and it will quickly tell you the states where your score would have qualified you as an NMSC semifinalist.

But wait, there’s more.  The site also offers to certify qualified students based on a national standard of merit.  If you represent and warrant to us that you received a PSAT score meeting the minimum cutoff in at least one state (and you give us the opportunity to try to verify the accuracy of your score with NMSC), we’ll give you the right to describe yourself as an “Acadium Scholar.”  We’ve separately applied to the USPTO to registrar that phrase as a certification mark (in parallel fashion to my earlier “fair employment mark”).

Instead of the yes-or-no signal offered by the NMSC, we’ll also certify students based on the number of states in which they would have qualified as semifinalists.  For example, a student who scored a 211 could be certified to describe herself as a “19-state Acadium Scholar.”

Our certification allows:

·         A student from a strong cutoff-state, like Texas, who scores a 218 (just missing the Lone Star qualifying cutoff of 219) to say nonetheless that he’s a 41-state Acadium Scholar.

·         A student from a weak cutoff state, like North Dakota, who scores an extraordinary 235 on the exam to say that she is a 50-state Acadium Scholar.

We’re even letting sophomores use their scores to certify so that all the pressure isn’t on junior year.  There are also some sophomores who may have scored ten points better in their sophomore than their junior year.  Now those students can certify as Acadium Scholars based on their higher scores.

Neither India nor I think that this location-based discrimination is the most momentous issue facing our nation.  And we don’t think there’s a single correct definition of merit. We’re just offering another way to measure merit—one that ignores the geographic boundaries within our country. Many people are surprised to learn that the “National Merit Scholarship” is really a state merit award, and not so “National” at all.

If receives more than a few hundred visits we’ll be surprised.  But we’d like to throw it back to you, Freakonomics nation, to guess how interesting this idea will be to Americans.  I’ll send a signed copy of Super Crunchers to whomever posts the best guess about how many people will post a score in the home-page widget before July 4th in the next week. Happy guessing!

[Don’t be confused.  The Acadium Scholar site is not affiliated in any way with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation or the PSAT/NMSQT.]